What happens when we alter an image in a mirror held up to ourselves?

What happens when we alter an image in a mirror held up to ourselves?

Based on all the noisy cultural buzz, it seems that a sizable portion of intra-holiday, pajama wearing TV viewers sunk some serious couch time to check out Charlie Booker’s latest cultural critique.

Who’s Charlie Booker? He’s the mastermind behind the often clever, sometimes brilliant, occasionally exasperating British television import called Black Mirror. As a producer and writer, Booker treats his electronic canvas like something of a cultural electrocardiogram. Viewers know that modern societies are struggling to adapt to the strange forces unleashed by ubiquitous interconnectivity. Viewers also know, just like many heart patients warned about cheeseburgers, that it might be healthier to ingest more nutritious media diets. Black Mirror reminds us episode after episode that we simply can’t seem to resist the temptation of our online french fries. Click, click, click, like endless salted potatoes, we feast on streams of information with only marginal nutrition. Over time our online lives have hardened our cultural arteries. Black Mirror suggests that our habits are feeding us not merely junk food, but a recipe for turning ourselves into part of the cannabilistic cultural meal.

It therefore seems inevitable that Booker and his team would try to crack the most essential challenge. They want to directly involve the same audiences to whom they’re holding up, well, a mirror. That leads us to Bandersnatch.

If you’ve only just now woken up in 2019, Bandersnatch is the name of a new film created by the Black Mirror team, released exclusively on Netflix. It follows the efforts of a young computer programmer in the mid-1980s as he furiously tries to bring a new video game to market on time. There’s a twist, of course, and in terms of creative ambition, that twist is huge.

Throughout the episode viewers get repeated opportunities to select different branching plot options for the main character as he faces decisions large and small. Choices appear on the bottom of the television screen—or whatever screen you’re watching— and whomever is holding the remote control or the mouse or, uh, index finger can select how the story will proceed. 

Behind the scenes this initiative required significant effort on the part of the filmmakers. The movie required alternative production paths, including piles of pages of extra script, footage, editing, effects, sound and more. Hiding in plain sight is the fact that the production team needed to work closely with Netflix to figure out how to facilitate a way for viewers to actually select what would happen in the story without interrupting the flow of the film. That required special software on the Netflix back-end for seamless integration with the programming platform viewers already understood and used.

The storytellers say they were trying to get audiences to consider all of the many forces that push and pull each of us throughout our day. Bandersnatch asks us to question our own autonomy, much like the main character himself questions how and why things are happening to him in the film based on inputs from viewers, the unseen puppet masters. It’s a clever conceit, and conceptually speaking a worthy cultural conversation at both superficial and substantive levels. In terms of making a film worthy of 90 minutes of your life, however, I have reservations. 

Is this the future of video? Should we wonder when all storytelling will be a choose-your-own-ending experience? Are we all going to become couch-bound filmmakers? 

I hope not. It’s arguable that we’re already steeped in the process of telling our own stories by the self-directed rabbit hole each of us follow as we bop along our unpredictable world wide web forays. But that’s not the same as actual storytelling. The grand experiment that Mr. Booker and his team tried with their edgy new movie is a rare and fascinating stunt. But the reason audiences open books (assuming they ever read anymore)  and click on televised stories and watch movies is precisely because they want creators who’ve sweated the details to present journeys that would not have otherwise been discovered. Moreover, the vitality of storytelling resides in craft and style as much as plot. It’s one thing to watch to a love story. It’s another thing to watch Romeo and Juliet.

Pundits and cultural prognosticators have opined that Bandersnatch dares to pathfind a route to the future of narrative media. Certainly as a way to capture brief, fickle audience attention, the experiment was a smashing success; millions have already taken the journey, and many have taken it multiple times to check out alternate paths. But as a viewer, the whole thing left me feeling fragmented and unsatisfied. It’s clear that new technologies and strategies will improve to facilitate alternate, viewer directed narrative trajectories, but the very act of being forced to make decisions about where to go in the middle of the story required me to fall out of the story and into some sort of meta-narrative space. 

Perhaps that requires more flexibility on my part. Maybe I’m just old. Cinema itself was something of a dismissible curio when it first appeared, requiring decades to mature and ingrain itself in the culture. This strikes me as something different, however. Creative works of all sorts present new ideas precisely because they offer perspectives from the creators who made them. We enjoy, recoil, engage, or  contemplate creative works because they have a point of view, even if those points of view are simply to present a moment of entertainment.

For all of its smart cultural manipulations and technical flair, Bandersnatch strikes me as something of a spiffy circuit breaker. When audiences need to flip a switch to proceed the power fluctuates, and as everyone who lives on the web knows, it’s hard to have a good experience when the constant flow of information starts to fritz. 

Bandersnatch? Frumious, indeed!


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